Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution

The state of marriage is shifting in unexpected ways. A TIME/Pew special report shows how income, age and experience alter our chances of wedded bliss

  • Horacio Salinas for TIME

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    The D Word
    Even when couples are married, family life is a different experience for those with a college education and those without one. Professional occupations are much more likely to offer provisions for parental leave, the ability to work from home and flexible hours. Wealthy people can outsource the more onerous or dreary or time-sucking tasks that couples fight over. And the college-educated tend to have picked up more conflict-resolution and negotiation skills along the way. Their marriage is insulated from some of the stresses of balancing work and family. A sick child throws a much bigger wrench into the machinery of a factory or retail or service worker's life.

    In recent years, the overall rate of divorce has plateaued somewhat, and leaving a spouse is on the decline among college graduates. But that drop is being offset by a rise in splits among those at the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, the people least able to afford to divorce, so the rate is still high. Says Cherlin: "One statistic I saw when writing my book that floored me was that a child living together with unmarried parents in Sweden has a lower chance that his family will disrupt than does a child living with married parents in the U.S."

    It seems that the 21st century marriage, with its emphasis on a match of equals, has brought about a surge in inequality. It's easier for the college-educated, with their dominance of the knowledge economy, to get married and stay married. The less well off delay marriage because their circumstances feel so tenuous, then often have kids, which makes marrying even harder. "A marriage gap and a socioeconomic gap have been growing side by side for the past half-century," the Pew study's authors note, "and each may be feeding off the other." But because it's unclear whether the burdens of poverty are making people's relationships less permanent or people's impermanent relationships are worsening their poverty, the solution is not obvious.

    What to Do About I Do
    Is marriage, which used to be like the draft, now becoming more like West Point, admitting only the elite and sending the others off to the front line? Depends whom you ask. "The basis of marriage changed in the last century," says Seth Eisenberg, president and CEO of the PAIRS Foundation, one of the biggest relationship-education operations in the country. "But very few couples have had a chance to learn really what are the new rules of love and intimacy — not because the rules are so difficult to learn, just because no one told them. To interpret that as meaning there's something broken about the institution of marriage itself would be a horrible, horrible mistake."

    Marriage educators' solution is to bolster marriage, to teach people how to better communicate with their spouses. While they believe their techniques could work with any couple, they're big advocates of the legal union. Marriage is like glue, says Eisenberg. You can build something with it. Living together is like Velcro. "The commitment of marriage gives people the opportunity to grow and thrive in ways that other relationships do not," he says.

    Sociologists tend to believe the answers lie outside marriage. Coontz thinks that if we changed our assumptions about alternative family arrangements and our respect for them, people would be more responsible about them. "We haven't raised our expectations of how unmarried parents will react to each other. We haven't raised our expectations of divorce or singlehood," she says. "It should not be that within marriage you owe everything and without marriage you don't owe anything. When we expect responsible behavior outside as well as inside marriage, we actually reduce the temptation to evade or escape marriage."

    As an example, she cites the 2001-03 Fox reality show Temptation Island , in which couples who were living together were invited to a desert island to see if they could be lured into cheating. "They found one couple was married, and with a great show of indignation, they threw them off the island," says Coontz. "In my point of view, it's just as immoral to break up a committed cohabiting relationship as it is a marriage."

    Could living together become respected and widespread enough that it challenged the favored-nation state of marriage? The American Law Institute has recommended extending some of the rights spouses have to cohabiting partners. But cohabitation has not yet proved to be a robust enough substitute for most Americans to believe they can build a family on it. And as a successful marriage increasingly becomes the relationship equivalent of a luxury yacht — hard to get, laborious to maintain but a better vessel to be on when there are storms at sea — its status is unlikely to drop. As it stands, the way America marries is making the American Dream unreachable for many of its people. Yet marriage is still the best avenue most people have for making their dreams come true.

    Prince William gave his intended bride Diana's engagement ring. He wanted his mother to have a part in the day, he said. And despite how his parents' marriage faltered, not all the old traditions of marriage are obsolete.

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